News spread on Tuesday that Lyndon LaRouche, the dogged global conspiracy theorist and fringe United States presidential candidate, died at age 96. To those familiar with LaRouche’s theories, which for a New Yorker like me means anyone who rode the subway or met friends at a crossroads like Union Square or Columbus Circle, he was InfoWars or 4Chan before the internet was even a thing.
Like those digital instigators, LaRouche promoted an alternate political reality to his followers that deftly incorporated the latest news within a broader conspiratorial framework. In LaRouche’s case, he postulated a roster of villains that over the decades included Jewish bankers, the Rockefellers, the Bushes, and Queen Elizabeth II, all of whom supposedly promoted drugs and sickness to ensure world domination. He spread these ideas primarily through sheer will and by recruiting young followers who would stand in front of folding tables handing out fliers with chaotic designs and outlandish claims.
The current crop of conspiratorial thinkers have a much easier time of it, whether to assert that child actors faked the Newtown school shooting or that vaccines cause autism. As distinctions between sources of information have been flattened online, we as a society no longer effectively judge and marginalize fringe ideas. In the past, LaRouche supporters may as well have had signs around their neck saying “Wacko.” They were to be dodged, put in corners, denied access to the papers everyone read and the events sponsored by respected organizations.
Today, there are few mechanisms to impose that kind of marginalization. In fact, the opposite is true. Powerful tech companies enable conspiracy peddlers to identify vulnerable people ripe for indoctrination and line up the videos and “news articles” for them to consume. Why focus on the harm from conspiracy peddlers when you can boost traffic with enthusiastic dupes?
That the tech giants profit from conspiracies is unconscionable. But, in truth, quarantining conspiratorial ideas is no easy task. By linking up so much of the world, the internet has given strength to those of a conspiratorial bent by letting them know they are not alone. Much the way a collector of obscure jazz albums or a queer teenager in rural America gains sustenance through an online community, conspiracy believers give each other crucial support.
The challenge we face as a society is whether we can distinguish between those communities in genuine need of support and encouragement and those spreading hate and misinformation. Do we commit to making those distinctions, hard as that task at times may be, or do we embrace the libertarian order that treats each and all of them as worthy of protection as part of the internet’s freedom agenda?
A couple years back, this question of the internet’s empowering conspiracy believers centered on an emerging community of self-identified “targeted individuals.” TIs believe the government is disrupting their lives through mind control and operatives following their every move, so-called “gang-stalking”: agents beaming voices into their heads, bumping into them on crowded streets, and implanting tracking chips under their skin. In the past, such beliefs would be evidence of mental illness, which should lead to treatment.
Bound together by the internet, however, TIs can find books, articles, and testimony that reassure them that their suspicions are well placed. Unlike other troubling mental conditions, like anorexia or having suicidal thoughts, there is little material online telling TIs that they need help. In part that is because there hasn’t been much research on the topic, but also because it is hard to imagine a thriving industry of articles and interviews asserting that the world isn’t out to get you.
A 2016 New York Times article highlighted this gap and quoted Lorraine Sheridan, who has researched the condition, saying, “What’s scary for me is that there are no counter sites that try and convince targeted individuals that they are delusional.” She added, using a phrase that has become commonplace among critics of our political milieu, “They end up in a closed ideology echo chamber.”
In an essay for Real Life magazine on the “normalization of paranoia,” Geoff Shullenberger begins with an infamous case from 1810, when a London man became convinced that an “air loom” was used by Jacobins to send messages and control him from afar. There were a few other similar cases scattered over the years that followed, but the handful of people certain that an air loom was sending them messages weren’t in touch with each other or forming support groups.
The TI movement—fueled by the internet’s ability to connect people—shows how much that state of affairs has changed. The medical definition of “delusion” is grounded in what a person’s culture or subculture believes, Shullenberger writes, “so by the current definition, if a delusion becomes the basis for a shared worldview, it ceases to be a delusion. It gains the approximate status of a belief that lies outside the mainstream consensus—like, say, the flat earth or 9/11 trutherism—but is not viewed as symptomatic of a psychiatric illness.”
Certainly, there is reason to admire the resiliency of people who gather together to help each other through the incredible stress of experiencing what the mainstream world tells you is a delusion. Yet, there is still reason to push back. A couple of decades into the Internet Age, we are learning that literal madness fills the vacuum when civic rules and institutions disappear. We must do better. Doing nothing has gotten us here.
The news of LaRouche’s death traveled a peculiar path online this week. On Tuesday, a follower of his on Twitter linked to a brief message from LaRouche’s German-born wife, Helga Zepp-LaRouche, who described her husband’s passing and wrote reassuringly that “he lives in the simultaneity of eternity. It is now up to us to realize his life’s work.” Zepp-LaRouche didn’t tweet out the news herself at that time, though she tweeted cryptically a link to a 1994 article by LaRouche that discussed “The Truth About Temporal Eternity.”
The website Boing Boing jumped on the news, reporting, “The ultimate American politician and conspiracist is dead—at least according to Twitter.” Wikipedia, increasingly seen as the gold standard on the internet, at first held off updating the Lyndon LaRouche article to reflect his death, noting that the news had only appeared on LaRouche-affiliated sites, which were not considered reliable. Touché.